A Call to Stop Burning Forests in the Name of Climate Mitigation
Burning trees for energy delivers a one-two punch against climate change mitigation efforts. Harvesting woody biomass reduces the sequestration potential of forest carbon sinks, while the combustion of woody biomass releases large quantities of carbon into the air. Forest regrowth may not offset these emissions for many decades —well beyond the time the world has left to slow warming to avoid catastrophic impacts from climate change. With little time left to achieve a sustainable and inclusive future, burning forests for energy contributes to warming in the near-term and is not a viable climate solution
This article begins with an overview of the scientific background of why harvesting and burning forests for energy is not a viable solution to climate change or related challenges. This background section includes an explanation of key terminology used in the article. The next section presents the European Union (EU)’s Renewable Energy Directive as a case study on the consequences of including bioenergy in renewable energy policies. Following the case study, the article examines bioenergy policies in the United States and China—the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters. The article concludes with policy recommendations to focus government action towards reducing reliance on energy from forest biomass. These recommendations are that governments: (1) re-evaluate their bioenergy policies and ensure lifecycle accounting of forest bioenergy’s climate emissions associated with harvesting and burning forest biomass; (2) end incentives for harvesting forests for fuel and invest in forest preservation, low-emission energy, and low energy demand pathways; and (3) advance international consensus on the harms from forest bioenergy, specifically the impact on climate and biodiversity.